Dating from the year of the Festival of Britain, Chisenhale Road is one of an extensive series of photographs of London’s East End that Nigel Henderson took while living in Bethnal Green. Viewing a narrow strip of roadway and pavement from a high vantage point (probably a window), Henderson has created a composition derived from a scene of children’s leisure activity in the street below. Two boys play hopscotch while two other boys, positioned towards the foreground on the right, sit on the kerbside watching them. In the extreme foreground to the left of the composition a girl, with her back to the other children, looks downwards. The pronounced and long shadows suggest a sunny day, and a time in mid afternoon, after the school day has finished.
Between 1949 and 1952, Henderson took numerous photographs of East End street scenes; many, like this one, focused on the view from the window or steps of his home on Chisenhale Road. Looking down in bright sunshine on the prosaic drama of children’s play, Henderson exploits contrasts of light and dark, movement and stillness to evoke a sense of the ‘moment caught’. In terms of its composition, the picture emphasises flatness rather than three dimensionality, as Henderson seems to be preoccupied with the patterns created within the scene rather than the scene itself.
Three grid patterns are visible in the picture: a drain cover, half hidden by the head of the girl in the extreme foreground, the geometric pattern of the stone slabs that make up the pavement, and the crudely-drawn squares of the ephemeral hopscotch grid marked onto the road in chalk. Onto these grids the forms and shadows of the children, when read together, create distorted shapes. The shadows of the two children playing hopscotch emphasise their differing and momentarily arrested postures. One child leans forward on one foot, his shadow echoing his hopping, bending stance. Above him, the other child, whose long shadow stretches over the hopscotch grid, watches his friend’s progress. An element of abstraction emerges in the contrast between light and dark and the capturing of the transitory visual effects of natural shadows that overlay the artificial markings on the road. The scratched marks of the hopscotch grid recall photographs of graffiti in 1930s Paris, taken by the Hungarian-born French photographer Brassaï (1899–1984).
This photograph, as with others in the Bethnal Green series, has been significantly cropped. Modifying the appearance of the photograph is a characteristic of Henderson’s work, as can be seen in his series of ‘stressed’ images (see, for example, Stressed Photograph of a Bather circa 1950, P79310). A self-taught photographer, Henderson was not necessarily concerned with creating a perfect print, and often preferred the effects of ‘bad’ prints. In Chisenhale Road, the surface of the print has been modified, whether by accident or design is unclear. An uneven speckling, probably caused by chemicals dripped during the developing process, disrupts the picture plane, particularly in the left-hand corner.
Henderson’s principal concern with this photograph is with the recording of abstract patterns created by crude urban textures, and the layering of different surfaces, such as reflections on glass, rather than with a purely documentary photography. His particular treatment of his subjects indicates his affinity with Surrealism. The artist’s interest in Surrealism developed in the 1930s at first through his privileged access to the work of contemporary European artists through his mother, Wyn Henderson, in Paris and in London. In Paris, Peggy Guggenheim, a friend of Wyn’s, introduced Henderson to Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968), Max Ernst (1891–1976) and Yves Tanguy (1900–1955). Wyn managed the Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London, which opened in 1938 with an exhibition of the work of Marcel Duchamp, with whom Henderson became friends.
The subject matter of Henderson’s Bethnal Green pictures link his work to documentary photography. As such the images evoke the work of British photographers of the pre and post-War periods including Humphrey Spender (1910–2005), who was commissioned in 1934 to produce photographs of poor housing in the East End of London and in 1937 joined the social research project Mass Observation. In 1953, Henderson’s friends, the architects Alison and Peter Smithson (1928–93 and 1923–2003), used Chisenhale Road and other photographs by Henderson of scenes of children’s street games in a presentation at the CIAM 9 (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) in Aix-en-Provence. The photographs appear in a collage entitled CIAM grille 1953 (Musee d’Art Moderne, Paris) (reproduced in Walsh, pp.38–9), through which the Smithsons sought to illustrate an architectural philosophy that privileged the role of the street in the relationship between the built environment, the individual and the community.
Nigel Henderson: Photographs of Bethnal Green 1949–1952, exhibition catalogue, Midland Group, Nottingham 1978.
Victoria Walsh, Nigel Henderson: Parallel of Life and Art, London 2001.